In the wake of COVID-19, we’ve all had to deal with the sudden reality that we may not be able to perform acts of worship that are most beloved to us, acts of worship that we feel bring us closest to Allah. In this time it’s easy to fall into despair and wonder how we will feel that presence while being unable to perform certain acts of worship. Yes, we know Allah is All-Hearing and All-Seeing but there are times when we feel His presence more closely than others. Perhaps it is when you go to Jumuʿah and see the smiling faces of fellow believers, or when you go to the masjid for ifṭār in Ramadan and share a meal with your community, or maybe you planned to travel overseas to spend your Ramadan in a Muslim country and now the sudden pandemic of COVID-19 makes that all impossible.
Being unable to perform various acts of worship for reasons beyond one’s control is not a new phenomenon. And not being able to perform these devotions can be one of the greatest difficulties a believer faces—to set out to please God only to be turned away. But how do we deal with this loss while not losing its underlying reality (connection to Allah)?
While it is natural to feel a sense of loss it is crucial to remember the true nature of worship. Ṣalāh, dhikr, Jumuʿah, fasting, etc. are all forms of worship but their significance lies in their underlying intention and the faith of the one engaging in them. Just as someone who has no belief in their heart won’t be rewarded for the outward act of fasting, a person of faith will not be punished for not performing an outward act of worship due to circumstances outside of their control. A Muslim is rewarded for their intention to worship God by not doing a particular act; for example, staying away from the masjid to avoid the larger harm of spreading illness.
A devout servant is one who obeys God; not one who prays when God has told them not to pray (e.g., someone in the state of ritual impurity), or one who fasts when it is best not to fast (e.g., someone who is ill) nor one who gathers for Jumuʿah when it is forbidden (by both secular law and religious authorities). A Muslim is one who worships God and that form of worship can differ for different groups, individuals, and various time periods. When a menstruating woman doesn’t pray, a sick person doesn’t fast, and Muslims don’t gather in the time of a pandemic, refraining from worship is actually an act of worship and devotion to God because it involves obeying God.
In these times our faith is deeply tested and our conviction either secured or weakened. We must ask ourselves: are we attached to God Himself or to our ‘acts’ of devotion? Are we attached to the outward performance of worship or to its inward reality? And when we are turned away from those acts, do we turn towards or away from God?
In this matter, we can learn a lot from Umm Salamah رضي الله عنها, a devout worshipper of God who faced many barriers in her path of devotion. In these moments she always had the choice to either deepen her conviction or to turn to despair. In choosing conviction at even the most difficult points in her life she shows us that conviction and connection are always possible even as we face obstacles. Three incidents showcase this lesson best: when she was prevented from making hijrah to Medina, when her husband died, and when the Muslims were barred from making ʿumrah after the treaty of Hudaybiyah.